WEST VALLEY CITY -- City Community and Government Relations Director C. Ted Nguyen was on the spot.
A 13-year-old girl was shot during a drive-by shooting outside an Asian restaurant. What does the Asian community think of the gang problem? A television reporter wanted to know.Dressed in a sincere blue jacket and yellow power tie, with the poise of a seasoned media performer, Nguyen faced the news camera.
"It's not an Asian problem," he said, "but a communitywide problem."
Meanwhile, longtime family friend and businessman Ngu Nguyen is telling an observer about how, when Ted Nguyen was young, his two younger brothers used to pick on him.
This is the yin and yang of C. Ted Nguyen.
When Nguyen talks to the elder Ngu, the younger man speaks in Vietnamese, out of respect. But he speaks his parents' language, Ngu notes, with an American accent.
Ted Nguyen is an individualist with a quirky sense of humor who's donated money to a record store's tongue-in-cheek "decapitate Celine Dion" fund. But he's also successfully conformed to Utah culture, graduating from Brigham Young University after serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in California and Texas.
He's West Valley City's first Asian-American official. He says he takes pains to be not just a spokesman for the Vietnamese community, but at the same time his colleagues praise him for taking pains to be aware of Asian-American sensibilities and political correctness.
"He's the PC Nazi," said Brian Hall, the city's project manager for community and economic development. "He's a good conscience to have around. He makes sure we don't leave out the minorities."
Nguyen, 29, is West Valley City's media spokesman, legislative lobbyist, media strategist, grant writer and liaison to community groups. For the past three years he's handled media calls and cranked out press releases -- 258 of them last year alone. He oversees a staff of six and a budget of $400,000.
"He takes his work very seriously," said City Manager John Patterson.
Nguyen knows five languages: English, Vietnamese, Hmong, Laotian and Thai Eson. His multicultural background comes in handy when speaking to the city's largest ethnic group -- Asians and Pacific Islanders who make up nearly 10 percent of the city's 108,000 population.
When Patterson met Nguyen, Ted was the press secretary for former U.S. Congressman Bill Orton. Patterson was impressed with Nguyen's background. Nguyen was burned out on national politics and eager to get involved on the grassroots level.
Nguyen was hired in March 1995 as West Valley City's neighborhood services director. A year later he became the city spokesman.
Nguyen has made a difference to Abigail Hansen.
"He played a huge part in our being able to get the overpass," over the Bangerter Highway at 3100 South, said Hansen, spokeswoman for Communities Helping Avoid Death.
Nguyen coached the group on how to get the media's attention. In the end, CHAD successfully was able to raise the $861,800 from public and private sources to build the skywalk.
He was born in 1969, during the Vietnam War, in a central coastal city of Nha Trang. His given name is Cuong (pronounced Gun). His family fled South Vietnam in 1975 after it was conquered by the communist North.
They escaped by boat. His family was rescued and taken to U.S. military bases in Guam, Hawaii and California.
"We asked that we be relocated someplace warm," Nguyen recalled. But to his family's dismay it was the Arizona desert. They moved to Southern California briefly, then settled in Provo.
"The only thing I knew about Utah was the Mormons and the Osmonds," Nguyen said.
He learned quickly.
Nguyen's parents, Xi Thi and Niem Duc, encouraged Ted and brothers, Vinh and Viet, to adopt the American culture. Ted and Vinh adopted American names. Vinh became known as Vincent.
At 15, Nguyen was baptized a member of the LDS Church. His brothers became LDS as well. It was yet another way they fit in to Utah culture.
But Ted was different, said Vincent, a 24-year-old business management student at the University of Utah. "He was very serious," he added.
He even tried to open a sandwich shop in the house, Vincent recalled, and he was the one who organized neighborhood carnivals.
When Ted was young he kept up on current events. His parents didn't subscribe to a newspaper so he would sneak over to read the neighbor's early in the morning.
While attending Mountain View High School in Orem, Ted Nguyen did manage to get his hands on the high school paper, becoming its editor. He also was president of the writing club, a member of the debate team, part of student government and the school's Bruin mascot.
He was an All-American enough to win the Rotary Club's "Outstanding Student of the Year" award.
"I felt guilty for accepting it because I wasn't an American citizen yet," Nguyen said.
He became a U.S. citizen while attending BYU, from which he graduated in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in communications. He earned a master's degree in public administration there last year.
Michael Larsen was his best friend throughout high school and college.
"Ted was outgoing but studied hard," said Larsen, who now lives in Santa Barbara while working on a doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of California.
Larsen remembers when Nguyen's father died unexpectedly, Nguyen handled it better than he could imagine a 16-year-old could.
"It obviously was hard for him," Larsen said. "But he didn't fall apart."
So who is this guy?
The city's Community and Government Relations Director serves two masters: the city and the press. Balancing the two is the trick.
"My approach to the media," Nguyen said, is to provide the information they need. He said he doesn't want to lead reporters down a path, because that doesn't do the city any good.
He's a spinmeister with a hot streak of creative campaigns.
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of the opening of the E Center last September, he threw a public birthday bash for all babies born the month the building opened.
Last year's "We Are Polynesia," celebration was a hit. Numerous Pacific Island groups performed at the E Center to a sold-out crowd, thanks to Nguyen's media blitz.
He's proud of his media ratio: for every negative story on television or in newspapers last year there were more than three positive ones.
But while he's mastered the American art of media promotion, Nguyen adheres to traditional Asian values when it comes to his home life.
As is the custom, he still lives at home in South Jordan with his mother and two brothers who attend the U. It's traditional to not leave home until marriage, Vincent said.
When Nguyen does marry he says it will likely be a woman who would both respect and understand his Vietnamese culture and heritage.
Yet he likes American music and Western food. He prides himself on his Spanish paella that's so good, "Spaniards say it's better than their mom's." He also loves to ski.
Ngu Nguyen isn't at all surprised by Ted Nguyen's duality. He said he's seen a lot of Ted's contemporaries -- born in Vietnam and reared in America -- who try hard as teens to fit in as Americans. But as they grow into adulthood, they want to explore their Vietnamese roots, Ngu said.
Though Ted Nguyen understands the Asian community's concerns, Ngu said he wonders whether Ted hears them with a Vietnamese or an American heart.
Even so, Ngu said, he's very proud of Ted's accomplishments.
"Anytime I see a Vietnamese success it's a natural reaction to be proud."